Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette: Simon Drake vs. Derren Brown.Russian Roulette

Both of the above performers produced versions of the Russian Roulette game/trick for British television. Drake’s was a 70 second routine for a closing act of an episode during the second series of The Secret Cabaret in 1992. Brown’s was built up with the actual stunt performed live as the closing 10 minute segment of an hour long special.

I find both of these performances to be masterly and beautiful pieces of theatre. These are magic acts made specifically for TV, and choreographed and directed perfectly for that medium. And I find that the massively differing decisions taken in each case in terms of that staging allow a (possibly) useful study. Well, they might. Let’s find out!

Simon Drake – The Secret Cabaret (1992)

Derren Brown – Plays Russian Roulette Live (2003)
(15 minute edit, with the complete live segment)

Despite the long length of Brown’s final presentation, both versions are staged in a minimal manner: so what differences come over when we compare the minute long piece to the hour long presentation?

Let’s start with “believability”. Which of the pieces is more real? Drake’s is certainly more of a “theatre” piece, allowing us the distance to simply watch and draw our own conclusions. Do we really believe he is in any real danger? Perhaps not, but I don’t find that this diminishes from the effect in any way (the same way as I know that Juliet doesn’t really die, yet I can still feel the emotional content of the play as if she did). Brown’s version on the other hand is set up to make it more “real”. He goes out of his way to convince us of how real it is. To convince us at every opportunity of the tricks fairness and danger.

It is far easier to dismiss Drake’s as “just a trick”, but is that an issue? Can we enjoy it more because we are given less information? Does Brown’s insistence on the fairness and truth of the situation actually give us more inclination to search for a method?

Both the performers act (and react) as if it were a genuine stunt, with a genuine risk of death (check their pre- and post-gunshot reactions!). But we accept the danger in Drake’s staging without having to have it explained to us. The music, sound effects, imagery etc communicate the danger. Brown tells us (literally) exactly what the dangers and risks are.

Brown’s presentation also led to a gentle backlash when it became clear that all wasn’t exactly as it seemed. A police statement claimed that despite the script, “there was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk.” Was Brown’s insistence on “fairness” and “real danger” too much?

How much information do we need to give the viewer? And perhaps more to the point in terms of circus, how much of that information is already there? There in the technique, or in the cultural history, or in the audience’s own experiences?

When the “story” of the act is as clear as in Russian Roulette, how much extra information do we need to put on to make the act even stronger? I can imagine that Brown’s version lives on stronger in the collective cultural memory: but this is also related to general popularity and famousness, of course. Is it stronger as a piece of theatre than Drake’s 70 second telling?

I find both these pieces to be incredibly strong works of art – and the massive divide between them in terms of running time simply shows the two extremes of staging. The actual trick, the act of Russian Roulette, loading a single bullet into a revolver chamber and guessing (with death being the result of failure) where the bullet lies, is a stark and reduced piece of magic. Simon Drake chose to highlight the feat by cutting it to the bare minimum, whilst Derren Brown took the opposite route – making each step as open and clear as possible.

When the effect (the trick, the act) is clear and strong, then the staging needs to be at least as lucid and direct. How we create that clarity is down to our own artistic needs and choices. And in these two extreme examples we see that staggeringly different presentations can create a similar emotional impact. What they share is clarity, directness, and simplicity in their final execution.

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